Sunday, August 29, 2010
Notice the theme I had been developing through the first three games. Just as in past year, the Hoosiers are going to rely on their offense to win games. The defense is going to be a huge liability nearly all of its great players like Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew have moved on.
The Hoosiers will have to attempt to run up the score on every opponent, not because they are better, but because they will need to build leads because the defense will not be able to hold opponents in the fourth quarter. If the Hoosiers lead by a field goal with 2 minutes to go in the game, I'll bet against the IU defense most of the time.
Against Michigan, the Hoosiers will come out with a chip on their shoulder. They will score early and an unforced turnover will allow the Hoosiers to take a 21-7 lead at halftime. The Wolverines will get back in the game in the second half, but IU will outscore them 38-28, for their first win over Michigan since 1987.
The party will come to an end the following week when the Hoosiers travel to No. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes play on a different level. They should have the complete package. After the win over Michigan, Coach Jim Tressel will not let his team underestimate the Hoosiers. The reality check is convincing and immediate. IU loses 42-24.
The 4-1 Hoosiers return for homecoming to play Arkansas State -- the final non-conference game of the year. This should be the perfect way for the Hoosiers to forget about the pounding in Columbus. Arkansas State was rated near the bottom of the FBS by Rivals.com and is coming off a 4-8 season. Again, if the offense is healthy, the Hoosiers should be able to overcome any defensive problems with points. IU wins 38-21.
At 5-1, the Hoosiers will travel to Illinois and take on another team trying to claw back into the realm of football relevance. This will be the one road game that would be a disappointment to lose. If they cannot outlast Illinois, their bowl chances likely go away with it. I think IU pulls it out with a late touchdown: 28-24.
Now 6-1, the Hoosiers return home again to face Northwestern, the source of a ton of misery last season. The Wildcats stole the game in 2009, holding IU on fourth and goal from the 2 yard line and eventually won the game with a last-second field goal. There is no question the Hoosiers can win this game, but as a friend of mine (a Penn St. alum) once said "You can never underestimate Northwestern."
The tone of this game will be much different if the Hoosiers lose to Illinois. A loss the previous week and the Hoosiers likely will not win this game. But I think the confidence generated by a road win could carry the Hoosiers to win number 7. This game is close, but IU gets the late stop and kicks the winning field goal with less than a minute to go. Final score: 38-35.
Now 7-1, the Hoosiers begin to enter some national radar screens. They may be getting votes in the polls at this point. But now the schedule becomes an impossible gauntlet, beginning with No. 9 Iowa. Like Ohio State, the Hawkeyes are looking to contend for a Rose Bowl berth. They will not take the Hoosiers lightly. IU hangs around, but will only tease fans of a huge upset. Hoosiers lose 31-24.
No. 12 Wisconsin awaits the following week, which will fully expose the weaknesses of the Hoosier defense. The Badgers like to run the ball and with the high-octane Hoosier offense waiting to explode, Wisconsin will run it even more. The Hoosiers won't get the ball long enough to stay in the game at Madison, losing 17-3.
At 7-3, the doubters are back and the national media is gone, just in time for IU to kind-of welcome Penn State. It is a home game, but will be played in Washington D.C. While I will be excited to attend, the Hoosiers will not be playing like they are at home. This game will be dominated by Penn State fans and they will have plenty to cheer about. IU loses for the third straight week, 31-21.
Now 7-4, the Hoosiers attempt to reclaim the Old Oaken Bucket at Purdue. The Boilers are rebuilding and also improving, but the good news is IU should not have to win this game to gain the bowl bid. IU Coach Bill Lynch knows an 8 win season would impress just about everyone in Bloomington, but I don't see it happening. Flip your coin for this rivalry game ... it's tails. Hoosiers lose, 28-24.
The Hoosiers will finish the year 7-5 and likely head to the Texas Bowl or return to the Insight Bowl. Lynch will lose the bowl game, but it is a good season, one that earns him a contract extension.
If the Hoosiers want to make post-season plans, they will have secure them early. They likely will have to win seven of their first eight games. Yes, that is a tall order, but the IU schedule is largely back-loaded with unwinnable games. It may be possible to be 7-1 heading into November.
The Pre-Conference Schedule
The good part about IU's opponents before the Big Ten schedule begins is that they should not be too tough to handle. The opener Thursday against Towson matches the Hoosiers against a team that won two games last season, but only one in conference. Quarterback Ben Chappell and the IU offense should have no problem overwhelming the Tigers.
The scene moves to Western Kentucky in week 2, the worst team in the football bowl subdivision, according to Rivals.com, and the loser of all 12 of its games last year. It's a road game, but again, the IU offense should overwhelm the Hilltoppers.
If Chappell, receiver Tandon Doss and running back Darius Willis are potential all-conference players (maybe not first-team, but second- or third-team), the Hoosier offense should not have a problem putting at least 35 points on the board in both games.
Akron comes to town in week 3, the traditional MAC pre-conference match-up IU loves to schedule. The Zips were rated higher than IU in the Rivals.com ranking, 88, but not by much (IU was rated 97). Home field advantage will come into play here. After two big wins to start the season, the momentum will begin to build and fans will come to Memorial Stadium. This game may end up a track meet, but IU should be able to outlast Akron to start 3-0.
Next: The conference schedule
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Of the eight 2009 losses, I'm picking the worst and most soul-crushing today.
The worst loss of the year was the first: A 3-point loss to Michigan. The Hoosiers had not beaten the Wolverines in their last 15 meetings. And they had not won at Michigan Stadium in many, many years -- 1967 to be exact.
Michigan was ranked No. 23 after knocking off Notre Dame in week 2, but I thought they were ripe for an upset. The Michigan defense was weak and its offense was still learning the spread offense, hardly dominating.
The Hoosiers had the lead at halftime, but trailed by two in the fourth quarter. The offense didn't quit and took a 33-29 lead with less than 9 minutes to go. But the defense could not hold Michigan and surrendered the lead with less than 3 minutes left. I thought the Hoosiers had one more drive left in them, but a bad call ended the game. Quarterback Ben Chappell threw a pass to Damarlo Belcher, who appeared to catch it and fall down, but a Michigan defender came up with the ball and it was ruled an interception. Game over.
How could it get any worse than that? Remember which team we're talking about here...
The most soul-crushing loss came on Halloween: 42-24 at Iowa.
The score may look lopsided, but hidden in the box score was that the No. 4-ranked Hawkeyes were on the ropes after three quarters. Indiana had a 21-7 lead at halftime and going into the fourth, it was 24-14 Indiana. The Hoosier defense was forcing turnovers, six to be exact. They were well on their way to the biggest upset maybe in Hoosier football history.
Then the bottom fell out.
Once again, the IU defense gave way. They gave up 14 points on two one-play drives, passes of 92 and 66 yards. In about 4 minutes, the Hoosiers went from up 10 points to down four. Two more late Iowa touchdowns ensured the game was out of reach.
The Hoosiers were outscored 35-3 in the second half. It was a choke of the grandest proportions. It was soul-crushing and season-ending, the second of five straight losses to end the season.
Next: Predicting the 2010 season: Better things to come?
Sunday, July 18, 2010
It's not all that surprising. The Hoosiers are ranked 97th out of 120. The major problem they found is what we already knew: defense. The second major problem is the Big Ten schedule, also which we already knew.
I'm a little concerned about IU's company in the bottom third of the country. The Hoosiers are ranked behind Army (95) and Kent State (96), as well as Akron (88), who is on the IU schedule this year.
The good news is IU plays the worst team in the rankings in Week 2: Western Kentucky. The Hoosiers also are ranked ahead of Arkansas State (100), which is IU's homecoming opponent.
As of July 18, the full list had not been released. Other IU opponents on the list so far are (in schedule order): Michigan (41), Illinois (84), Northwestern (57), and Purdue (62). That means four IU opponents are in the top 32. My guess is Iowa, Ohio State and Penn State will end up in the top 15 and Wisconsin could end up in the top 25.
These pre-season rankings are tough to use in drawing conclusions. But I don't think it's a good sign when 10 of 12 games will be against better teams.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Since I'm the most excited about IU football before the season begins -- take that as a hint of my thoughts on the Hoosiers' prospects of playing in the 2011 Rose Bowl -- I thought I would take a look back at the 2009 season. Let's just say it's my own version of positive thinking. Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, but things have to look up this year right?
Let's start with last year's greatest win.
There weren't that many to choose from: Eastern Kentucky, Western Michigan, Akron and Illinois. Each was impressive in its own right, but I'm going with the only road win of the bunch.
The Hoosiers' win at Akron was the greatest of 2010 mostly because it was on the road. IU helped the Zips open their new stadium. While facing a hostile crowd, the Hoosiers were able to execute despite falling behind late in the second quarter. The team forced four turnovers and looked like a defensive squad, which any fan would admit is not one of its strong points. What was considered a good Akron offense did not get much going and any momentum they generated was stopped cold by turnovers.
The win that wasn't: Unfortunately, this was how the 2009 Hoosiers defined themselves. The team grabbed leads, only to blow them late in the game. The Hoosiers held leads against quality teams like Iowa and Penn State, only to lose them in the second half.
The one that really was a win, or at least should have been, was the 29-28 loss to Northwestern. The Hoosiers were blanked in the second half and gave up 26 unanswered points to the Wildcats after taking a 28-3 lead late in the second quarter. The worst part, maybe the low-point of the season, came in the third quarter. IU, leading 28-19, had first and goal at the Northwestern 7, but could not convert.
On fourth and goal from the 1 yard line, rather than kick a field goal and increase the lead to 31-19, the Hoosiers went for the touchdown. Mitchell Evans was tackled for a 1-yard loss. Northwestern took over and drove 98 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to 28-26. The collapse was completed with 21 seconds to go in the game, when the Wildcats kicked the winning field goal.
That game essentially ended the season. IU could have moved to 5-3, been brimming with confidence and one win from a bowl berth. If the team had pulled out one of those close games, who knows what could have happened that season.
Next up: The worst and the most soul-crushing losses of 2009.
Saturday, May 8, 2010
Thursday, March 25, 2010
First, I do not consider Xavier and Butler to be in that category. While a Final Four berth would be unexpected, both are traditional mid-major powers that cannot sneak up on any team in the tournament. Tennessee, Washington and Purdue, all lower seeds in their games, would never be written-off by anyone.
However, there still are several teams that may be dismissed without a second thought. I only like one: St. Mary's.
- St. Mary's will upset Baylor and move to the Regional Final. I was impressed with how the Gaels took care of Villanova and not all that excited about the Bears, which did not impress with its win over Old Dominion. This game seems like a toss-up on paper, but I could see St. Mary's dominating the front court, which would open up its perimeter game. How cool would it be for St. Mary's and Duke or Purdue to play for a Final Four berth? Then I really would be rooting for an upset.
- Cornell will lose to Kentucky. Sorry Ivy League fans. Despite blowing out Wisconsin and Temple, I don't see the Big Red doing the same to Kentucky. The Wildcats have some size in the post to match-up with Cornell's bigs as well as speed and shooting at the guard position. Kentucky's youth will catch up with them at some point in this tournament, but it won't be in this game. Cornell is just over-matched and out-talented.
- After upsetting Kansas, Northern Iowa will lose to Michigan State. This game screams upset, especially after State's star Kalin Lucas went down for the season with an injury. I think an upset is possible, but won't happen. The Panthers were out-played statistically against the Jayhawks, shooting a lower percentage overall and grabbing fewer rebounds, yet still won. Kansas may not have been able to capitalize on the rebounding edge, but Michigan State will. Sparty also will play much better defense, especially on the perimeter, than Kansas. This game will be close, but Michigan State's rugged style of play will win out.
Friday, March 19, 2010
The conference got eight teams into the dance, but only saw one of four teams win first round games on Thursday. Georgetown was bounced by 14th-seed Ohio University, Old Dominion clipped Notre Dame in a 11-6 upset, and Washington knocked out Marquette at the buzzer. No. 2 seed Villanova managed the only win, in overtime, over Robert Morris.
Was it a bad day for the Big East? Of course. Any conference supporter wants all its teams to advance. But really, should the conference be embarrassed at its first-day showing? Absolutely not.
As an alum of a Big Ten school, I've had to listen to these grumblings during numerous past tournaments. Six or seven Big Ten schools get into the dance, and only one or two advance beyond the first round, which cues the criticism. But if you notice, rarely are the top-tier of the conference exiting early. Pundits should complain about the weakness of the Big Ten if Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State are upset today, not if Minnesota and Purdue lose.
No one expected Ohio to dominate Georgetown, but the Bobcats shot 57 percent, including 56.5 percent from the 3-point line. You put up those numbers you're going to win, even if you play Kansas.
As for Marquette or Notre Dame, both losses were expected. I hate to burst some bubbles, but the Irish were lucky to get into the tournament. Their best player is hobbled by an injury, which made the game a toss-up. Marquette fans should not have been surprised either. Washington won the Pac 10 tournament -- certainly not a push-over -- while the Eagles posted a 12-loss regular season.
There are no easy games in the NCAA tournament. Fans, especially those of big six conference teams, have to recognize that mid-major teams can play big-time basketball. These teams may not land starting line-ups filled with high school All-Americans, but they are well-coached and experienced. These mid-major teams aren't scared of the big schools any more.
I really can't call the Notre Dame or Marquette losses upsets this year. An above-average team in a big six conference is no longer miles ahead of the winner of a mid-major counterpart.
Now if Pitt, West Virgina and Syracuse have trouble or find themselves out after this weekend, then I would push the panic button. But don't dump on the Big East because its second tier couldn't compete with the best mid-majors.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Yesterday during the frenzy surrounding Woods' announcement that he would return to golf at next month's Masters, I heard a CNBC reporter suggest the ratings for Sunday's final round could reach Super Bowl levels if he has a chance to win. I think that's a stretch, even if Woods is in the lead heading into the final day. There are so many Super Bowl viewers that are not interested in football -- those that watch for the commercials, those at parties who normally wouldn't watch the game -- that will not watch The Masters. Woods transcends the sport, but not to the level the Super Bowl transcends football.
I do think the first two rounds could set records for the number of online viewers. Masters.org will broadcast live video of the entire tournament. Just like tomorrow and Friday, when office workers will secretly access live feeds of NCAA tournament games, Woods fans will be tuning in on their computers and smart phones to watch him tee off on the first hole as well as his entire opening and second rounds.
I would expect this year's first two rounds to easily set records for online viewers. It will be another sign that online media is evolving into a major money-maker. I suspect the price for online advertising on Masters-related Web sites already is shooting up.
Undoubtedly more people will tune in to the weekend TV broadcast if Woods makes the cut. But expect the real story to be Thursday, when Woods takes his first swing, and where everyone was watching...
Not on a TV, but on a computer.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Many pundits, as well as I, suspected Woods would play at least one tournament prior to The Masters as sort of a tune-up. For those non-golfers out there, tournament golf cannot be simulated on the practice tee. We all thought Woods would want a warm-up before taking on a major championship field.
However, as the news broke this morning, I thought making his return to The Masters probably is the best place to do it. And here's why:
- Logistically, it makes the most sense: Woods return already is being called the biggest return to sports in the last decade, maybe ever. The crush of sporting press at his first tournament will be out of control. Add the gossip press that is covering his non-golf problems and you create much more than a media circus. Because it is a major championship, which draws media from around the world every year, The Masters is equipped to handle the onslaught. Woods can hide there if he wants.
- If Woods is seeking control of his return, he can get it at The Masters: Augusta National Golf Club hosts The Masters each year, not the PGA Tour. It invites whoever it wants to play the event each year. And as a private club, it strictly controls a limited amount of tickets for the gallery. In fact, badges for the event are famously difficult and expensive to obtain. That will limit the number of potential hecklers or hooligans that potentially could be on the grounds.
- Woods can control the media crush as well: Augusta National can credential whichever media outlets it chooses to cover the event. That means if they don't want TMZ.com on the grounds taking pictures and asking questions, they can do that. There is no indication yet whether the club will do that, but my guess is Tiger's people have made the request.
- Woods has dominated the course: Woods has won The Masters four times, finished in the top three seven times and the top 10 nine times. Of the 15 times he has played the event, he has finished in the top 25 12 times. Club officials lengthened it and added rough because it was too easy for him. His game suits that course.
Should Woods be considered a favorite to win? Probably not, although I wouldn't put it past him. If it's true what he says that he didn't pick up a golf club for a few months after the Thanksgiving incident, I doubt he will be in contention. Like any other sport, golf requires athletic ability that you can't just turn on and off.
For someone who enjoys the pressure of competition, this will be Woods' ultimate test. Not only is he dealing with a major championship, chasing the record of the greatest golfer of all time, and expectations that he must win every time he plays, now he is shouldering the burden of returning to golf after the off-course disaster.
He will have the biggest stage to show he hasn't lost a step. I think he'll have a good showing, but not a great one. He'll make the cut and finish in the top 20, but I don't think he'll be in contention during the final round.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Twelve of the 31 games on the Hoosiers' schedule this season came against NCAA tournament teams: Maryland, Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Ohio State (2), Minnesota (2), Purdue (2), Wisconsin (2), and Michigan State. Another six games were against NIT teams: Mississippi, Illinois (2), and Northwestern (3). That's 18 out of 31 games, or 58 percent, against the best 97 teams in the country.
Among those playoff teams were one of the favorites to win the national championship: SEC champion Kentucky; the ACC regular season co-champion, Maryland: and two games against the Big Ten regular season and tournament champ: Ohio State.
I know it's hard to compare college basketball and pro football, but all the sudden the Hoosiers' difficulties this year seem a little more understandable. Whenever the new NFL schedule is released, a huge emphasis is placed on the number of playoff teams each fan's favorite club will face that year and is used to predict success. Given coach Tom Crean's extremely young and inexperienced team going into the season, could fans have expected a whole lot more than this year's results if I told you they would be playing more than half of their games against playoff teams?
If the Chicago Bears had to play two games against the NFC North division champ, the Minnesota Vikings, another two games against a Wild Card winner, the Green Bay Packers, as well as a game against the best team in the conference and NFL champion, the New Orleans Saints, and another Super Bowl favorite, the Indianapolis Colts, would you expect them to make the playoffs or have a winning record? If the Bears lost all six of those games, the margin of error to grab a post-season spot shrinks dramatically.
I firmly believe Indiana should include quality teams in its non-conference schedule because it can provide a valuable measuring stick for players and coaches. So I would not say the Hoosiers over-scheduled their team this year. But I definitely can't fault them too much for struggling. The team was not good enough to expect any easy wins and it was difficult to find many games where the Hoosiers had a fighting chance short of playing a perfect game.
The good news is in several cases the Hoosiers played well against the superior competition. They beat Pittsburgh in New York, by far the biggest win of the year, beat Minnesota in Bloomington, lost at the buzzer to Illinois on the road and lost by three to Purdue at home.
Unfortunately, Crean and his players have a long way to go. While it was painful at times, we did see some improvement over last year. Let's hope the program has taken another step forward at this time next year.
Friday, February 12, 2010
The scoring difference in Big Ten play mostly has come in the second half. IU was outscored by 73 points in those 11 games, while in the first half, the scoring difference was 24.
The Hoosiers' field goal percentage is 39.5 in Big Ten play, which is essentially tied for worst in the conference with Iowa. That wouldn't bother me very much, except that IU is allowing opponents to shoot 45.2 percent.
I think these numbers will improve soon. But I don't think it will happen Saturday at Wisconsin or Tuesday versus Michigan State. There may be two games left where the Hoosiers have a fighting chance: at Iowa and at home against Northwestern. If not, we'll be hoping for a surprise in the Big Ten tournament.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
After a clunker at Michigan in January, a 24-point loss, the Hoosiers won two in a row, over Minnesota and Penn State. After a 15-point home loss to Iowa, a game they were expected to win, the Hoosiers lost by a combined five points to Illinois on the road and Purdue at home.
The 17-point loss at Northwestern on Sunday was another clunker, another byproduct of a young team trying to improve while playing a tough Big Ten schedule. The Hoosiers shot a meager 35.3 percent for the game, including 32 percent in the second half. Their three-point shooting percentage was just under 12 percent.
Northwestern, on the other hand, had a fantastic day, shooting 52 percent for the game, including 59 percent in the first half. The Wildcats shot 40 percent from behind the arc, making six three-pointers in the first half. The Hoosiers made two threes the entire game.
The defense simply was not there, but this team will not back down. It faces another tough task tonight. The Buckeyes (18-6) are ranked 13th in the AP poll and 16th in the ESPN poll and haven't lost a conference game since Jan. 9. The Hoosiers will have to start strong to stay in it. I don't see them coming back from a 15-point deficit in the second half. If they can grab an early lead or keep it close into the second half, they may have a chance.
Tip-off is early, 6:30 p.m., on Big Ten Network. Here's hoping tonight brings win number 10.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
There's no question, on paper Purdue has a better team that IU this year. The Boilers are farther down the rebuilding road than the Hoosiers at this point. I'm hoping IU can pull a little magic from the home crowd and steal a win.
It could happen. The Hoosiers looked great on the road against Illinois. It may have been the best 40-minute performance of the season. If they can play another game at that level IU has a chance.
The Boilers also play at Michigan State on Tuesday, which will probably be one of the games of the year in the Big Ten. A sub-.500 Indiana team should not present as much of a challenge. Could Purdue possibly be looking beyond this rivalry game?
Purdue also has lost two of four road games in the Big Ten, at Wisconsin and Northwestern. Their road wins in conference so far came against Illinois and Iowa, but were not blow-outs. This team may dominate at home, but is vulnerable on the road.
Indiana also has a couple statistical advantages heading into the game, both defensive categories. The Hoosiers average more than 36 rebounds per game, while the Boilers average more than 34. Indiana also averages more steals per game, 7.9, than Purdue, 7.6.
The Hoosiers will not have much margin for error. They can't get into foul trouble early in the game or have any long scoring droughts. And they have to keep the effort level up the entire game, a trait that has defined them this season.
I'm looking for a great game with a loud and emotional crowd in Bloomington. If IU starts fast, Purdue won't let it get out of control, and if the Hoosiers stall early, they will get back into it late in the first half or early in the second half.
The Hoosiers will win it by three for the team's biggest win under Tom Crean. This one would be bigger than the win over Pitt in New York.
Tip-off is at 7 p.m. on ESPN.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Instead of the Colts, I and others wanted the Jets to be preparing for a game with the Saints. I admit, even though I picked the Colts, I was rooting for the Jets. I jumped out of my couch when the Jets took a 17-6 lead with less than 2 minutes left in the first half.
Unfortunately, the defense the Jets relied upon to carry them in the playoffs failed. Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne were held in check. It was two other receivers, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, who are big-play threats, but not people defensive coordinators are going to game-plan around, that won the game.
As for the Vikings, they beat themselves. Quarterback Brett Favre threw the interception that sealed it, but four other turnovers essentially lost the game. Looking at the offensive stats, you wonder how the Saints won. Quarterback Drew Brees threw for 197 yards, including three touchdowns, and Pierre Thomas led the team in rushing with 61 yards.
Favre threw for 310 yards and Adrian Peterson rushed for 122 yards. Those numbers would be understandable if the Vikings were playing from behind in the second half. But the game was close throughout and tied at halftime, as well as after the third and fourth quarters.
The Saints did not win that game. They were opportunistic in taking advantage of Vikings mistakes. The Vikings lost this game and despite all the mistakes, still were in position to win it late in the fourth quarter. That tells me the Vikings found a way to slow the Saints offense.
That's the reason I'm leaning toward the Colts to win the Super Bowl right now. There were cracks in the Colts offense in the first half, when the Jets were able to force field goal attempts in the red zone rather than allow touchdowns. But the Colts adjusted and by the end of the first half had the Jets defense solved. The Colts touchdown drive late in the first half gave quarterback Peyton Manning the road map.
Manning and the Colts offense may have trouble with the Saints defense early in the game. But I think he and the coaches will adjust. It will be up to the Colts defense to make sure the Saints don't put the game out of reach while the adjustments are determined. Garcon and Collie also must scare the Saints defenders. Besides worrying about Clark and Wayne, now defenders know Collie and Garcon also can make big plays.
Right now I think the Colts will score more than 28 points and could win by at least 10.
Friday, January 22, 2010
In the AFC, I would love nothing more than to see the Jets ruin another Colts season. I am a firm believer that resting players instead of chasing a perfect season should not be rewarded. And I believe that decision kept my team, the Steelers, out of the playoffs.
The Jets are red hot and not because their coach's wild comments are the darling of the New York media. It is because all that talking has taken most of the pressure off the players. Instead of talking about what it would be like to play in the Super Bowl or upset the favored Colts, the players mostly are responding to their coach's comments. While I do think Rex Ryan believes what he said about his team, I think there is more there than simple vanity. The last thing he needs is for his players to remember they were never supposed to get this far. Ryan is helping maintain the team's momentum by consistently telling everyone the Jets are good.
I think the Jets can stay on their roll this weekend. This two players that will determine the outcome: Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and Colts tight end Dallas Clark.
Clark had seven catches for 59 yards against the Ravens, including four receptions that resulted in first downs. Since the Colts' top wide receiver, Reggie Wayne, will be double-covered the entire game, Clark will become Colts quarterback Peyton Manning's go-to guy.
If the Jets figure a way to keep the ball out of Clark's hands, it will put them in a great position.
A rookie quarterback started last year's AFC Championship game and probably decided the game. Joe Flacco of the Ravens completed 13 of 30 passes for 141 yards and three interceptions in their loss to the Steelers 23-14. His most crucial turnover of the game was a Troy Polamalu interception return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. If Sanchez plays similar to Flacco, the Jets are doomed, no matter how well the Jets defense plays.
Ideally, Sanchez should not have to throw the ball a lot because that would mean the Jets running game is clicking and the team is in the lead. Sanchez has two touchdown passes and one interception in the playoffs. He needs to manage the game effectively for the Jets to win it.
I want to pick the Jets. I really, really want to pick the Jets. But I don't think Sanchez will play a mistake-free game. He'll have one turnover, either a fumble or interception, which will be enough. The Colts will win a close one, 24-21.
In the NFC, the sentimental pick is the Saints, who are in their best position ever to get to a Super Bowl. The two players that will shape this game are the two most important players on the field: Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Vikings QB Brett Favre.
Brees is playing at home and at the helm of a monster offense. Favre is at the helm of a monster offense, too, but is on the road. The Vikings may be familiar with playing in a dome, but the noise when Favre is on the field will be deafening. Favre will not be able to make too many changes at the line of scrimmage and probably will deal with false-start and delay-of-game penalties.
Favre also must deal with long-time teammate Darren Sharper in the Saints secondary. If you don't think Sharper knows Favre's tendencies, you're sorely mistaken. That should be good for at least one interception, either by Sharper or another Saints defender.
With a sizable advantage because of the crowd noise, I think Brees will do a better job managing the game. In his other NFC Championship appearance, Brees did not play all that well, but the entire Saints team fell flat that day, losing big to the Bears. Brees learned from that experience and will use it to his advantage.
Favre on the other hand, will be undone by his gunslinger mentality. He may have played within himself during the regular season and divisional playoffs, but with the pressure on, I think he'll revert back to his old self. If the Vikings fall behind or can't get their running game on track early, Favre will be throwing the ball a lot. At that point, it's only be a matter of time before he begins making mistakes.
Both teams will put points on the board, but the Saints will win it with defense in the second half. With the Vikings trailing by a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Favre will throw an interception that the Saints will convert into a field goal. The Saints will win 31-21 and earn their first Super Bowl berth.
It was the team's first conference win on the road this year and the first for Coach Tom Crean since his tenure at Indiana began. The team is 3-3 in conference play and 9-9 on the season, both already improved from last year.
The Hoosiers have a win over a top 25 team, Pittsburgh, and two conference wins over teams with winning records, Michigan and Minnesota. And as of this morning, Indiana is tied for fifth in the Big Ten.
The most obvious improvement from last season, as well as earlier this season, came from Crean during last night's post-game press conference.
"There was no panic in our guys' voices; there was no deer-in-the-headlight look," Crean said after the game, according to comments posted on IUHoosiers.com.
Looking ahead, I'm wondering if we adjust our expectations for this season.
Before the season started, I thought a .500 or better finish was possible, but after watching the results in the pre-conference season, I wondered whether this team would win more than seven or eight games. This team has improved so much over the last month, I'm wondering if these Hoosiers could reach 15 wins or more by the end of the season.
Indiana has 12 games remaining, including four games against Iowa and Northwestern, two of the three teams below them in the Big Ten standings. The Hoosiers also will play Michigan State and Wisconsin, the top two teams in the conference, only once. The game with the Spartans is in Bloomington, which will should slightly diminish the size of the task.
Realistically, could the Hoosiers finish the season 15-15 heading into the Big Ten tournament? If the Hoosiers continuing playing with the poise they found last night, I could see them sweeping or taking three of four against Iowa and Northwestern. I also don't think a win at home over Purdue is out of the question. And these Hoosiers are not the same team that was blown out by Ohio State. When the Buckeyes come to Bloomington it will be a much different game.
That's five or six potential wins. Could this team steal the game at Minnesota or against Michigan State?
No matter what happens, year two of the Tom Crean era is turning out to be a big improvement. I think it's a reasonable goal to go for .500 for the year. If that happens, Indiana may begin the 2010-2011 season contending instead of a rebuilding.
What do you think? Tell me your expectations for the remainder of the IU season.
Next game: Against Iowa, 6 p.m. Sunday. The game will be on Big Ten Network.